I love beer, always have. When I was young, I associated beer with my father. He was not a big drinker, but on sunny summer days, he’d ride his motorcycle home from his office in the suburbs of Boston to our home just to have lunch with me. He sipped his Heineken and ate pepperoncini straight from the jar while I prepared my special hot dog recipe (diagonally scored, poached in a quarter-inch of his Heineken) and talked about my day.
In my 20s, beer was the magical trap door to extroversion I used to navigate high-rise college dorms and British beer cellars.
In my 30s, my new husband and I learned how to brew beer. As we boiled, strained and bottled, we learned how to negotiate our new life together.
My love affair with beer took a dark turn in my 40s, until finally, one summer morning, my father intervened. I was an alcoholic, he said, and I knew he was right.
I’m approaching 50 and have been sober nearly five years. I’m profoundly grateful for each and every day, but boy, do I miss a good, cold beer.
Beer has been a part of American culture since Europeans set up the first colonies, first as an English import and later as a home brew made from Indian corn or barley. The first commercial brewing equipment arrived on our shores in 1633, and within a year, every New England community was required by law to have an inn, or “ordinary,” which sold beer to the public at a fixed cost.
Today, nearly 5,100 American beer producers sell about $111.1 billion in beer annually, much of it marketed as a means to celebrate with friends and quench our thirst.
Various forms of nonalcoholic beer, or “small beer,” have existed since the medieval era as an alternative to contaminated water. Modern nonalcoholic beer, “NA beer,” or “near-beer,” was born during Prohibition, when alcohol levels above 0.5 percent were illegal. Despite the optimistic nickname, most “near beers” are a poor substitute for the real thing, and many are downright undrinkable. As the market share for nonalcoholic beer increases, however, some craft brewers are working to change the reputation of NA beer.
Most fall flat, not because they’re missing the alcohol, but because the process most brewers use to remove the alcohol also removes volatile flavors. To make beer, water and a grain, usually malted barley, are cooked into a “wort.” Hops are added for flavor, and yeast is added for fermentation. The yeast eats the sugar from the barley and excretes digested sugar as alcohol and carbon dioxide. Most brewers bottle the beer at this point, allowing the residual yeast to consume the last of the sugar and carbonate the beer. Brewers of nonalcoholic beer, however, either stop the fermentation before it’s complete (“stop-fermentation”) or boil the beer to lower the percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV) below 0.5, and it’s this final step that renders so many NA beers unpalatable.
The problem with boiling beer is that it doesn’t just remove the alcohol, it also destroys other flavor compounds that give beer its fullness and character. Some brewers boil under vacuum pressure to reduce the boiling point by about 100 degrees, thereby mitigating damage to flavor.
Two American craft brewers, Jeff Stevens of WellBeing Brewing and Philip Brandes of Bravus Brewing, have taken on the challenge of creating craft nonalcoholic beer that’s not just a palatable substitute for beer, but a brew worth celebrating.
“When I got sober at 24, my biggest fear was that I’m never going to have fun again,” Stevens told me in a phone call. Stevens started drinking nonalcoholic beer early in his sobriety, mainly as a way to fit in at work functions. “Everyone orders an alcoholic drink and you order a Diet Coke, and there’s this moment where everyone looks at you and wonders, ‘Is it okay for me to drink in front of this person?’ Ultimately, I hope we can give people in these kinds of social situations a choice that they’re excited about drinking, and that signals to everyone [that they are] there to fully participate in the night.”
Stevens, who founded WellBeing in St. Louis in 2016, uses the vacuum boil method to make his Heavenly Body Golden Wheat and Hellraiser Dark Amber, available in limited retail locations and by mail order.
Brandes, founder and head brewer at Bravus, tried his first nonalcoholic beer in October 2015, when a sober friend brought two cases along on a vacation in Mexico. As Brandes tells it, “I tried it and spit it right out, and I said to him, ‘You used to love craft beer, don’t you have an NA IPA, or NA stout?’ and he said, ‘No, man, this is all I can get.’ I said, ‘I’m going to try to fix this for you. I’m going to get you an NA IPA.’ Little did I know how difficult that was to actually accomplish.”
Brandes paired with a home brewing microbiologist, set up a mini-brewery in his garage in Laguna Beach, Calif., and developed a proprietary process he describes rather cryptically as “a traditional beer, but we figured out how to sort of manipulate yeast in the process to not produce a lot of ethanol.” He brewed his first batches in December 2015 and started testing out his beer on friends, family and in a small bar in Laguna Beach. Today, Bravus stocks an India pale ale (IPA) and just released an oatmeal stout, both available in retail locations around Los Angeles and by mail order. A “CaliforN/A Amber” will ship in a few months.
I ordered all four beers in production at both Bravus and WellBeing, and as they arrived, I tasted them, on their own and with food. The WellBeing Heavenly Body Golden Wheat arrived first, and it immediately became my favorite NA beer, by far the best I’d ever had. The Bravus IPA arrived a few days later, and even though I’ve never been a big fan of IPA’s strong hop flavor, I became a convert. It is clean and crisp, with no hint of the bitter, skunky cardboard flavors that doom so many NA beers. Later that week, I paired the Bravus IPA with some really spicy Indian food and fell even more in love.
I was excited when the Hellraiser arrived, as I hoped it would conjure memories of the cool English beer cellars and warm summer nights of my 20s. Although Hellraiser is far and away the best NA dark amber ale I’ve tried, it did not stand up to the quality of the Heavenly Wheat or Bravus IPA. Its initial nutty promise quickly dissipated into a flat, watery brew with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
The final beer to arrive on my doorstep was Bravus Oatmeal Stout, and it was nothing short of a revelation. Even my husband, a longtime Guinness and Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout fan, blinked, smiled and proclaimed it “fantastic, the best nonalcoholic beer I’ve ever had.” I had to agree, and I think I’d be hard-pressed to distinguish it from a traditional, alcoholic oatmeal stout.
I can’t wait to share these beers with my father. We stopped eating hot dogs a long time ago, and he sold his motorcycle in the early ’90s, but we still have lunch together as often as we can, usually accompanied by a nonalcoholic beer. I don’t know if he drinks it for his own reasons, or to support me, but I don’t really care. I’m just grateful I still get to have them both.
Lahey is the author of the forthcoming “The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Addiction-Resistant Children in a Culture of Dependence.”